Will Yasser Arafat poisoning report derail Middle East peace talks?

A Swiss report saying it's possible the former PLO chairman died from polonium poisoning comes out just as US Secretary of State Kerry is trying to salvage negotiations.

Adel Hana/AP
Palestinians walk past a mural depicting late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Shati Refugee Camp, in Gaza City today. Swiss scientists have found evidence suggesting Arafat may have been poisoned with a radioactive substance, a TV station reported on Wednesday, prompting new allegations by his widow that the Palestinian leader was the victim of a 'shocking' crime.

The timing couldn't be worse.

After nine years of suspicion and rival investigations intended to resolve whether Yasser Arafat, the iconic former leader of the Palestinian cause, was poisoned by radioactive polonium, a Swiss report say it's possible.

This is a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel on a visit that, as The Christian Science Monitor wrote, “is widely acknowledged to be about preventing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from seizing up entirely.” 

It is unclear whether the Swiss report, first reported in Al Jazeera Wednesday, will definitively resolve the mystery surrounding Mr. Arafat's death in 2004; investigators report that their findings “moderately support the proposition” that Arafat was poisoned by polonium. But many Palestinians have claimed for years that his death was murder perpetrated by Israel, and the impact of relations between the two might be what is most at stake this week.

As The Guardian notes:

The explosive conclusions of Swiss scientists, who conducted tests on samples taken from Arafat's exhumed corpse last November, will reignite accusations against Israel and deepen the widespread conviction among Palestinians that a man they saw as a revolutionary hero was murdered. They are likely to worsen the already corrosive atmosphere of the faltering peace negotiations and fuel popular demands that the Palestinian leadership walk out. 

The Irish Times adds today:

Yesterday’s findings could be politically embarrassing with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators engaged in US-sponsored peace talks aimed at clinching a peace deal next year. 

The details of Arafat's death will become a bigger story in the days ahead, especially after Swiss scientists give a press conference this afternoon, local time, on their findings, reports Reuters.

Professors Patrice Mangin, director of Lausanne University Hospital's forensics center, and Francois Bochud, director of its Institute of Radiation Physics, will "answer questions related to their report handed over on Tuesday to representatives of Madame Suha Arafat and the Palestinian Authority," according to a statement.

Many people have already drawn their own conclusions. "We are revealing a real crime, a political assassination," Arafat's widow, Suha, told Reuters in Paris after receiving the report.

Wasel Abu Yousef, member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement: "President Arafat passed away as a victim of an organized terrorist assassination perpetrated by a state, that is Israel, which was looking to get rid of him.”

From the Israeli side, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said: "This is more soap opera than science, it is the latest episode in the soap in which Suha opposes Arafat's successors."

The issue exploded Wednesday, after the publication of a report in Al Jazeera that included, the paper said, the Swiss team's 108-page report, based on tests after Arafat's exhumation last year. Swiss, Russian, and French investigators have been testing Arafat's remains to put to rest questions about how he died.

As The New York Times notes, the teams have not yet come up with a unifying answer, with a Russian expert saying last month his team found no traces of polonium (and officials later denying any statement was made), and the French yet to release findings.

Even if it's conclusively confirmed that Arafat was poisoned many other questions remain, The New York Times notes:

Ghassan al-Shaka’a, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee from Nablus, in the West Bank, said that it was now confirmed that Mr. Arafat was poisoned but that “we need to know who planned, who instigated, who implemented” the alleged killing. He said the Palestinian Authority had decided to postpone revealing the test results for a few months for “political reasons.” 

Answers are not likely any time soon, at least by the mainstream media dealing with the “gray areas” surrounding Arafat's life and death, argue Matthew Kalman and Matt Rees, coauthors of "The Murder of Yasser Arafat," in an opinion piece in Haaretz last month.

“Unless someone comes right out and admits responsibility for killing Arafat, or until a respected authority proves beyond doubt that no one killed him,” the two wrote, “readers of traditional journalism will remain in the dark.”

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